Read This: Inheritance, Poems by Steven Reigns

June 1, 2010

Steven Reigns writes with a memoirist's clarity and a clear mission: to excise the demons of the past, to expose buried secrets to the air and – most importantly – to offer a voice of compassion and understanding to those who've been down the same road.

The cycle of abuse recalled in Reigns' new collection, Inheritance ($13, Lethe Press), is nightmarish in its scope: from being sexually abused by a neighbor to the constant verbal and physical abuse from both parents who don't understand their gay son. These memories are journalistic in their concise, factual reporting, but also resonate with understated lyricism. There are no wasted words or sentiment.

Like Kim Noriega's chapbook Name Me (which I reviewed last week), Inheritance is a journey one must undertake, but the road is often filled with landmines sure to make readers wince more than once. And, yet, Inheritance is not only a necessary journey, but a must – for survivors and those untouched by abuse. There is a deeper understanding being told in these poems.

In "Playing With The Doll," a nine-year neighbor gradually turns from molesting a plastic doll to a young Reigns. When his mother finds the semen-coated doll and Reigns tells her of the abuse, her response is. "You're such a liar, don't blame it on anyone else. / You're sick Steven." The neighbor eventually moves on to molesting Reigns' sister.

The mother figure, beaten and demoralized by the father, takes out her anger and frustrations on her son, looking for any way to embarrass him or call his burgeoning sexuality into question. In "After the Ballgame," the mother taunts Reigns as he sits on the toilet, needling him about his poor performance as a baseball player – a sport he was forced into by his father.

I cannot think of ways to leave this situation.
My pants and underwear rest on my cleats.
My ass dirty,
my torso naked,
"You seem to want to be a girl.
Maybe we could go to the doctor and he could make you a girl."

When Reigns moves away and begins to explore his sexuality, the abuse from his past continues to haunt him. He wallows in cocaine, one-night stands and yearns for real love and affection. Meanwhile, his friends from the party circuit begin to succumb to AIDS.

Reigns turns to poetry to replace his missing parental figures. In "Mother," he details his attraction to female poets:

Reviewing my bookshelf I appear
more like a lost boy than a bibliophile.

Seeking out a mother figure
from women who mother words.

Along the way, Reigns finds familial bonds again from his sister and his elderly grandfather, who loves him unconditionally. From "100%":

My grandfather,
a man
who pats my head,
rubs my back,
kisses my cheek,
tells me he loves me,
and hopefully,
isn't ashamed that other men do the same.

Inheritance ends with Reigns still struggling to learn to love himself, but there is also a spark of hope – from the friendships and relationships he's made since he left his abusive childhood home. Reigns' poems have a cinematic quality about them, so it's fitting this collection ends on a cliffhanger. I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment.